April 15, 2013

Marchand evolves from ultrapest to Bruins' top gun

By Jesse Connolly

Brad Marchand roared out of the gate with 11 goals in his first 19 games. (Getty Images)

By now, you know his array of nicknames all too well.

He’s the Rat. He’s the Honey Badger. The Nose Face Killah. The Little Ball of Hate.

Brad Marchand’s earned himself many a moniker as a Boston Bruin, the majority of which stem from the scrappy winger’s knack for driving opposing forwards and defensemen batty. So far in this abbreviated 2013 season, however, it’s been goaltenders receiving the most torture from No. 63 in Black and Gold.

When Marchand picked up his second tally a week into the season, he grabbed the team lead in goals. He hasn’t relinquished it since. Marchand entered April with 14 goals through 33 games and a superb 22.2 shooting percentage.

“Marchy just has a knack for finding the net, especially this year,” said teammate Chris Kelly. “I think his shooting percentage is sky high. He does a lot of the little things that maybe go unnoticed. Everyone notices the goals, but he does a lot of the little things on the backcheck, the forecheck, turning pucks over for his linemates and things like that.”

There was a time when Marchand feared no one would ever notice him doing the little things, the big things or anything at all in Boston. After an unspectacular pair of stints with the big club during the 2009-10 season, Marchand — entering the final year of his entry-level contract — returned in September 2010 to skate with the veteran players at captains’ practices before training camp officially began. Despite the informal setting, Marchand told me at the time that he felt nervous.

“It’s funny. It feels like forever ago,” said Marchand, who inked a four-year, $18 million extension last summer that runs through 2016-17. “I always talk to the older guys, and they speak about how quick it goes by. They’re not wrong. Looking back, it seems like such a long time ago.

“It’s such a different situation coming in, not knowing what’s going to happen, being unsure about my future with the team, wondering whether I would end up here or Providence. It was a scary time. I thought my opportunity might’ve passed and I wouldn’t get another crack at being here. It was nice how things worked out that year.”

One individual who helped Marchand get ready for the big stage was Rob Murray, head coach of the Bruins’ AHL affiliate in Providence from 2008 to 2011. An agitator himself during a 16-year pro career, Murray had a special appreciation for Marchand’s game and didn’t go out of his way to change it, despite a number of conversations with management about curtailing the pest-like antics.

“I tried to follow the company way here, but I knew from my experience that it got me into the game even more,” said Murray. “He’s that type of guy. It gets him all fired up. He never shuts up and that’s how he was in Providence.

“There were a few times when his teammates — he kind of overstepped his boundaries, and I’m not going to tell you what he said — were like, ‘Marchy, no, a little too much.’ And he’d look at them and agree, ‘Yeah, yeah. I probably shouldn’t have said that.’ Now, like I told him when he was in Boston, I said, ‘You know what? You can do that. But if you’ve got no goals, you’re not holding much clout.’ So then he goes out there and gets 20 goals and just runs his mouth, but he’s got his skill and his stats to back it up. A guy like that, to me, is so valuable.”

Murray even gave Marchand the leeway to try to get in an opponent’s head before the puck dropped.

“There was one night we were in Springfield, and Robby Schremp — who was a top pick of the Edmonton Oilers at the time — his thing was to be the last guy off the ice after warmups. And Marchy knew this, so Marchy stayed on the ice,” Murray, now head coach of the ECHL’s Alaska Aces, recalled. “These two guys stood on the ice as the Zambonis were doing the ice and stood right at the gate. I came in (the dressing room) about 10 minutes before the game was about to start and the guys were like, ‘He’s still out there.’ And I knew exactly what he was doing.

“So I walked out and our runways were right next to each other. At the same time, the Springfield coach yelled at Schremp, ‘What the (expletive) are you doing? Get in here!’ And I looked at Marchy and said, ‘Marchy, you’re starting,’ and I walked back in our room. I knew that was his game, and he would do anything to get under anybody’s skin. He was not going to let Schremp be the last guy off the ice. It’s little things like that, the gamesmanship, that he’s got a really good grasp of.”

When you play that kind of game on a nightly basis, however, sometimes that grasp is going to slip. In March 2011, Marchand was suspended for two games for elbowing Columbus forward R.J. Umberger. In January 2012, the Nova Scotia native was whacked with a five-game ban for clipping Canucks blueliner Sami Salo.

Facing the music and getting on the phone with Brendan Shanahan isn’t a pleasurable experience.

“A little nerve-racking,” Marchand said, cracking a smile when asked what phone calls with the NHL’s chief disciplinarian are like. “It’s a big conversation. Most of the time, I think you understand what you’re going into. You know you did something wrong and you’re probably going to be suspended. You’re more just kind of anxious to see how many games you get, or whether you’re going to get some or not. It’s never a fun conversation.”

Marchand aims to avoid having such chats this season, as the former 71st overall pick made a conscious effort to clean up his game.

“I don’t want to get another suspension. It can’t happen,” he said. “It’s at the point where I’ll get eight to 10 games if I get another one, and I can’t let that happen. If you watch my game, I’m not as physical and I’m really nervous about hitting guys in the wrong position. It does take an element away from my game. I used to hit a lot. I used to be edgier.”

Constantly evolving and exceeding expectations on the ice, Marchand’s also undergone quite a transformation off the ice, maturing at a rapid rate since joining the pro ranks.

“In Providence, you learn more of the pro game on the ice, but here you learn more off the ice,” said Marchand. “You see how the guys carry themselves and deal with different situations, deal with the pressure of the fans, being in public and all that.”

Marchand won it all as a rookie. He scored two goals in Boston’s Cup-clinching victory over Vancouver, cementing his status as a rock star ’round these parts.

Kelly knows what it’s like to be on a highly successful team as a young player. Ottawa finished in first place in the Northeast Division during his rookie season in 2005-06. The following spring, the Sens advanced to the Cup finals.

“As a young guy, when you have success, you need to enjoy it, because it’s not always going to be the case,” said Kelly, whose Senators failed to win a playoff series in the three years following that run to the finals. “You hope that you’re always going to be on a successful team and contending every year, but it’s not going to be the case a lot of times. I think Marchy handles it well, especially individual success on a good team. You can get wrapped up in that with people telling you how great you are. He seems to find a way to stay grounded and still works hard to perform and to perfect his game in every area.”

A lot of that stems from the lessons Marchand was taught early on by his father, Kevin.

“He’s a lot of fun. He’s a really intense guy,” Marchand said of his dad. “He’s always pushed work ethic on me, my brother and my sisters. He’s always taught me to believe in my abilities and always wanted me to push to be my best. It’s funny at times, some of the things he’d say to help me push a little bit harder. He’d tell me I could be better than this guy, or I could make it to the next level, even if I was unsure of it. He always believed in my abilities, and I definitely wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

Kevin also helped mold his son into the style of player he is today.

“He played university back home. He was a bit of a fighter and a goal scorer at the same time,” Marchand said when asked about his dad’s playing career. “He had it all combined. He didn’t want me to fight at all and he hated that part of the game. He wanted to push me more to be a scorer — to be a gritty player, but a scorer as well. I think he’s happy with how it turned out.”

With the playoffs commencing at the end of April, Marchand will again be counted on to be just that — a gritty player, yes, but above all else, a goal scorer. Murray feels postseason hockey is as good a time as any for the big-game performer to infuriate the opposition.

“He knows there’s not much retribution coming his way in the playoffs because no one can afford to take a bad penalty,” Murray said. “That’s what he’s kind of trying to goad them into doing. If it doesn’t happen, then he’s just going to keep going on and on. He’s just that kind of guy. I appreciated him and probably more so because a lot of that was my game. I was an agitator and I had a lot of penalty minutes throughout my career, and I was always one to be yapping at the other team.

“Honestly, in a lot of ways, it’s a lost art. You don’t see it anymore. Guys are quiet on the bench. You get into a game, it gets a little heated, I look down my bench and think, ‘Is anyone going to say anything?’ He’s a real throwback.”

So does Boston’s agitator extraordinaire feel like he balances being a pest and a goal scorer?

“Balancing being a pest and a scorer is tough at times,” said Marchand. “Different times, your mindset will take over one way or another. The main thing is you don’t want to hurt your team in any kind of way. Sometimes when you’re focused on being a pest, it can draw your attention away from playing the game or you might take a bad penalty here or there.

“This year, I’m worrying more about being a scorer than being a pest. One, it will hopefully get me a longer career, and two, hopefully less guys will make runs at me. It’s definitely still there, though. It gets me in the game sometimes and I need that.”

With nine points in his last eight games coming into a Saturday matinee against the Capitals at TD Garden in March, Marchand’s numbers reflected his mission to focus more on his offensive productivity than his ability to boil the blood of the opposition. But in the final minute of the second period, he got center Mike Ribeiro to drop the gloves for the first time since his days in junior. The Bruins winger clocked him with five solid uppercuts, then emphatically ripped off Ribeiro’s helmet before the linesmen came in to break up the one-sided bout.

Marchand’s dedication to being on his best behavior will benefit the Bruins in the long run. But every once in a while, Boston’s version of Bruce Banner will have to set his own inner Hulk free to wreak some havoc.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the editor of hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com